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The Louisiana State Bond Commission voted 12-2 Thursday to withhold financing for over $30 million worth of construction projects in New Orleans that affect both public and private facilities. The board said it will take up the projects at its meeting in September instead.
The surprise vote fell along partisan lines, with Republicans deciding to stall the projects and two bond commission members appointed by Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards opposed.
The Republican officials who voted for the delay largely did not explain why they had done so, but several are upset with New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell for imposing tougher COVID-19 restrictions.
Cantrell, a Democrat, is requiring people entering most indoor spaces in New Orleans — including restaurants, bars and music venues — to show proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID-19 starting Aug. 23.
Republicans in the Louisiana Legislature have complained about Cantrell’s measures, which they think will deter visitors to New Orleans and potentially affect the state funding generated from tourism.
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House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jerome Zeringue, R-Houma, said in an interview Thursday that Cantrell’s COVID-19 restrictions were a factor, but not the entire reason for the suspension of funding. Some of the individual projects raised concerns for House members, he said, though Zerginue wouldn’t go into detail about what those concerns might be.
As a member of the bond commission, Zeringue — who also oversees the building of the state budget — brought forward the vote to delay financing for most of the New Orleans projects. House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, seconded the motion — and also declined to fully explain why the projects were stalled.
“The projects that were held back today were done so for additional scrutiny,” Schexnayder said in a written statement Thursday. “Something we do all the time.”
Republicans have been upset in general at the prioritization of projects in the state construction budget. Zeringue and other lawmakers held a public meeting this week to express frustration with Louisiana Transportation Secretary Shawn Wilson, an Edwards appointee, that certain road projects they had funded didn’t appear to be moving forward yet.
But New Orleans does seem to be a target. The Bond Commission held back on lines of credit for 17 construction projects Thursday — 16 of which are located in New Orleans. Meanwhile, they moved forward with hundreds of millions of dollars in financing for construction in other parts of the state.
Most of the New Orleans projects got pulled from consideration, though not every single of one of them did. Zeringue said the commission moved forward with financing for a levee project that affects the city. The commission also approved $765,000 for planning and construction of a state civil rights museum, which will be located in New Orleans.
Still, the stalled projects affect schools, universities and medical facilities. They include renovations to the dental school at LSU Health Sciences Center New Orleans, several upgrades to the Port of New Orleans, planning and construction for a new behavioral health hospital at Children’s Hospital New Orleans, the construction of a new drug treatment center, a roof replacement at New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, and a new high school focused on science and math.
The Louisiana Legislature — including several members of the Bond Commission — had already voted to put all of those projects into the construction budget as priorities. Lawmakers spent weeks negotiating what projects around the state would receive financing first. The New Orleans delegation may have only agreed to vote for the construction budget — and other legislative bills — based on their understanding that these projects in the city would get funded.
The Bond Commission did explain its rationale for withholding funding from one project in New Orleans. The board delayed the approval of $28 million worth of renovations to the Superdome through a motion by Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette.
Cortez said he wanted to make sure that season ticket holders who weren’t comfortable with the COVID-19 restrictions being imposed at Saints games or who are uncomfortable with being in the stadium because of the public health crisis were given a full refund.
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In compliance with the restrictions laid out by Cantrell, the Saints are requiring people attending their games in the Superdome to either show they have been vaccinated for COVID-19 or tested negative for the virus recently.
The Saints had initially said they weren’t willing to refund the tickets of those who didn’t want to attend games this season, but the team reversed itself shortly before the Bond Commission meeting Thursday — seemingly in an attempt to avoid a delay of funding for the Superdome project. Lawmakers expressed appreciation for the Saints last-minute effort, but said they wanted more assurances from the Saints about fan refunds before approving the funding.
Though Cortez made the motion, Attorney General Jeff Landry orchestrated at least some of the pushback on the Saints. Landry had publicly called on the Bond Commission earlier in the week to hold up the Superdome funding, until the Saints agreed to give out refunds.
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Putting pressure on the Saints is just one way Landry has pushed back on vaccination efforts and COVID-19 restrictions. He’s also threatened to sue universities that seek to mandate the COVID-19 vaccine for students and promoted ways in which parents can get around mask mandates in K-12 schools.
Louisiana’s rate of COVID-19 cases is rising faster than almost any other state in the country. For 16 days in a row, the state broke its own COVID-19 hospitalization record and medical facilities are struggling to care for patients. Louisiana’s low vaccination rate — at around 40 percent — is driving this fourth surge of the novel coronavirus. Nine out of every 10 COVID-19 patients in Louisiana hospitals are unvaccinated.
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